Friday morning, I drove down to South Charleston, Ohio. It’s a little town between Dayton and Columbus with a good-sized EPC church which was hosting our presbytery meeting. Everything went fine until I pulled off the interstate and stopped at the sign to turn onto the state highway for the last nine miles of the trip. When I stopped, there was a loud “clunk”; when I started driving again—well, I didn’t start. I tried, but the car seemed to think it was in neutral. I found that if I put it into first gear, it would engage; I then discovered that I could work my way up one gear at a time until it was back in fourth gear. Then I made it into town and stopped at the light, and I had to do it all over again. Instead of an automatic transmission, I had a stick shift without a clutch.
There wasn’t any place in South Charleston that could work on it, so I had it towed to a shop in Springfield, about twelve miles away. They looked it over and told me they could probably have it fixed by Wednesday. Obviously, I couldn’t stay that long, so I hitched a ride home with the folks from the downtown church. I’m not sure how I’ll get back down there to pick it up, but I presume by God’s grace we’ll figure something out.
As you can imagine, the presbytery meeting didn’t hold my full attention. During the closing worship service, I was trying to focus, but I was also trying to figure out how I was getting home, and if I’d have to wait until Saturday to do it. Still, in the middle of my own little whirlwind, something the preacher said started me thinking about joy, and about this sermon and this passage.
I was stressed and unhappy for a lot of Friday—and the adrenaline crash afterward left me disoriented and miserable Saturday morning—but God reminded me during the service Friday evening, and again Saturday afternoon, that my circumstances don’t tell the whole story. Joy doesn’t come from our circumstances, it comes from the presence and work of God amidst our circumstances. He’s in control when my transmission breaks, and he’s working for my good when I don’t know how I’m going to get home, just as much as if I’d driven down and back without anything going wrong.
Joy isn’t in what the world can give; joy is in the Lord. We see this in the life of the traveler Philip meets in Acts 8. There are a couple things you need to understand about him. First, he was a rich and powerful man. Most people, when they traveled, went by foot; those who were better off rode donkeys; those who were well-off could afford a horse. The Ethiopian was one of the tiny percentage of people wealthy enough to afford a chariot.
This isn’t surprising, when you understand his situation. Ethiopia was a kingdom where the king didn’t do anything. You see, he was the child of the Sun God, and therefore far too holy to do any work at all, let alone the complicated job of ruling the kingdom. The actual ruler was the queen mother. It must have been an interesting system for the women. You marry the king, and all of a sudden you have a husband who does no work and isn’t allowed to, while your mother-in-law runs not just your life but everybody else’s. Your job is to have a son, whom everyone will pretend to believe isn’t your husband’s—which I suppose means he doesn’t have to be your husband’s—and when your mother-in-law dies, you take over the country. What a way to do business, huh?
The queen mother was called the Kandake, and her officials seem to have all been eunuchs—I guess to make sure that no one beat the Sun God to the punch in giving the king an heir. It was a rich and powerful kingdom, which probably shouldn’t surprise us; after all, it’s a pretty safe bet that the queen mother decided whom her son would marry, leaving her free to choose someone competent to succeed her. Since this particular official was in charge of the royal treasury, he was right near the top of the food chain.
Second, despite this, he was looking for something more, or he wouldn’t have been on that road through the desert. Jerusalem was a long way from the capital of Ethiopia (which, confusingly, was to be found in modern-day Sudan), but having traveled so far to worship God, he could go no farther into the Temple than its outermost courtyard, because he was a Gentile. What’s more, while most Gentiles could escape that restriction if they were willing to accept circumcision and convert to Judaism, he couldn’t; because he was a eunuch, he was permanently barred from the Temple by the decree of Deuteronomy 23:1. It was a long, arduous trip to go somewhere to be told he wasn’t welcome. He’d made it anyway. Not only that, he’d made the considerable effort to acquire a scroll of Isaiah. This was a man determined to worship God whether God wanted him or not.
And then suddenly, as he’s reading Isaiah 53 on his way through the desert—and not getting it—God gives him a message on two legs: yes, I want you. Philip is out there waiting for him, just as he’s hit something he cannot understand; Philip tells him exactly who the prophet is talking about, and it’s something he needs to understand. This is what he’s been looking for, and so when the road crossed a stream, the eunuch stopped his chariot and Philip baptized him. Then the the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away, and the eunuch didn’t care—he went on his way rejoicing, because he had been looking for something all his wealth and power couldn’t give him, and now he’d been found.
The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed; but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was,—“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” . . . The preacher began thus:—“My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. . . . Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ . . . Many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some on ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ . . .
When he had . . . managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death,—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted . . . , “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” I saw at once the way of salvation. . . . I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun.